Comment by the judge: Usually don’t care for first person stories, but this one was exceptional. The writer subtlely worked his way in as merely an observer of one of the most significant, yet often unknown, players in college football history. Good writing and presentation.
By Bob Hammel
Bloomington Herald-Times retired
For years, for a full generation after them, they looked out from an honored spot on the northeast wall of The Gables restaurant, a humming place then with its own hallowed role in IU history. It was a picture as iconic in Indiana University football history as the one of the Four Horsemen is at Notre Dame. A black-and-white picture given color, of the starters on the 1945 team that had given Indiana – still – its best season in history. Four feet-by-twelve feet, posted for the first time the week of the Purdue game in 1945. You can still see that picture today, on the third floor of Henke Hall in Memorial Stadium’s north end zone, and they still look heroic.
And today, the 75th anniversary of their season just a couple of horizons away, they are almost all gone. Quarterback Ben Raimondi is the last one standing after the death Monday of George Taliaferro – maybe not the best of them, but if not, close; maybe not the reason they went unbeaten, but a reason; definitely, no maybe about it, the legendmaker of them all.
IU lost a whole lot more than a former football player Monday. George ruffled his share of feathers along the way but made a great university greater. Football was his starting point, but not his limit. He was a champion of integration and racial equality, but that didn’t fully define him, either. He was the first to admit he married “up,” and he and wife Viola gave Bloomington a community conscience regarding responsibility and genuine care for kids, kids coming along without Rockwellian families, kids who are our future. Black kids, white kids, kids. The Taliaferros, long after the last football stadium cheer died out, influenced that future in ways that will live long after both.
But today my own mind sees George on a football field, George in No. 44, George in the flame of youth playing a game but changing a world.
As events as recently as last week remind us, Bloomington, IU, the Big Ten, college athletics have not always been equal-opportunity symbols. George came to IU from Gary Roosevelt High, one of those all-black schools intended in metropolitan areas to do just that: take in all of a community’s black kids so the rest of the city could stay all-white. Those schools – Crispus Attucks in Indianapolis, Lincoln in Evansville two of them – were public but denied full entry into the Indiana High School Athletic Association until 1943, when George was already in high school. At Roosevelt, his teams rarely played hometown opponents, commonly routed out of state – sometimes long distances – to find teams that would play them.
He wasn’t IU’s first black football player. He was Indiana’s – not just the university’s but the state’s – first black college sports star. It didn’t happen at Notre Dame. It didn’t happen at Purdue. It happened when George Taliaferro burst into prominence with a remarkable opening-day performance in college football’s Big House: Michigan Stadium at Ann Arbor.
No big aura came with him to IU. Few Hoosiers had even heard the name before radio voices rattled of this new Indiana running back’s deeds that led to a 13-7 victory over Fritz Crisler’s team that wasn’t to lose to anyone else that year except the two military titans of the time, Army and Navy.
There were no position numbers in those days. Taliaferro started with No. 79 and wore it through pre-season. On the overnight stop between IU and Ann Arbor, coach Bo McMillin called the freshman to his room and told him he’d like him to wear a new jersey: No. 44. Bo knew what he had in Taliaferro. He knew what he wanted that number to represent at IU: greatness. Billy Hillenbrand had worn it to All-America status under Bo. Gene Gedman was to get it from him later. George Taliaferro is No. 44 in IU history, and in that Gables picture.
George didn’t score that day at Michigan. He did a lot of other things, running, passing, punting, returning kicks, playing defense. His debut would have been something rare in those days, a 100-yard rushing game for a back, if he hadn’t lost seven yards killing the clock the last two plays. So he netted 95, went 3-for-3 as a passer for 23 yards. In the Indianapolis News, Bill Fox called him “devastating … tremendous drive. Inside the tackles and around the end, this sturdy lad ran beautifully.” A Detroit writer called him “185 pounds of dynamite – ripped his way through the Michigan line almost at will;” Chicago Tribune: a “brilliant freshman.” A star was born, a team took shape, a season was launched – and in a living room in Huntington, Indiana, 8-year-old Bob Hammel adopted IU as his team.
Two years later, that bashful kid walked into a principal’s office and talked his way into a High School Day ticket and busride to see IU play Pittsburgh. Sat in the west end-zone bleachers and watched George field a punt at the Pittsburgh 44, dodge and dart and zig and zag from sideline to sideline till he made it all the way into that end zone. My end zone. George later told some interviewer it was his best college run. I hadn’t heard that when I interviewed him 40 years later about his induction into the College Football Hall of Fame. After covering all necessities, I asked if he remembered that run. “Oh, yeah!” he exploded, and told of how IU photographer Allen Graham was caught in a change-of-film so there was no recorded capture of that run. “Don’t worry, George – got it all up here in my head,” I assured him. Oh, it was beautiful. And that program I had saved from that day got a #44 George Taliaferro signature, a framed and treasured prize.
From Michigan, that team of Pete Pihos, Howard Brown, captain Russ Deal, Ted Kluszewski, Bob Ravensberg, John Cannady, Mel Groomes – those heroes on The Gables wall – got better and better. John Swanson of Bloomington was a 9-year-old Minnesotan then. He watched IU come in on a bitter cold afternoon and do something never previously done to a Bernie Bierman team: wallop the Gophers 49-0. It was 35-0 at the half. Just last Sunday, a day before death made George Taliaferrro a name for conversation, John told me, “There’s no question he was the best player on the field that day.” He ran the opening kickoff back 95 yards; he ran an interception back 82 yards; he took a pitch from Pihos and ran for another touchdown, one of his three that day.
In a 52-20 win at Iowa, Taliaferro had his first official 100-yard game. That didn’t include picking up a teammate’s fumble and running 62 yards for a touchdown. Later he ran 73 from scrimmage for another. In the Des Moines Register, sportswriter Bert McGrane wrote of the first: Taliaferro “ran down the sideline much more rapidly than the situation demanded,” and of the second: “Mr. Taliaferro busted through left guard (and) simply flew into the Iowa secondary, then through it like a startled deer.”
He wound up All-Big Ten, third-team All-America. IU won its only clear-cut Big Ten title yet and finished No. 4 in the polls: behind Army, Navy and Alabama. It was the last year before Big Ten teams were allowed to go to bowl games. Talk reached even Congress of a special post-season matchup of Blanchard-Davis-Army against Indiana, and Bo McMillin leaped at it, eager to show the country what a team he had. Didn’t work out.
George’s career played out at IU, with one major interruption. He lost most of one season to knee surgery. In those days, IU sent emissaries out around the state after each game, playing game films. One of those groups regularly came to the Huntington YMCA. I’d go alone, sprawl out on the gym floor there, and watch the film. When they came and told of George’s knee injury, that he was out for the year, there were tears on young Bob Hammel’s pillow that night.
He’s too old to cry now. Smiling feels better. The memories that George Taliaferro’s passing triggers make it bearable.
Bloomington Herald-Times (retired)
Background: Bob Hammel still has the writing touch, 23 years after he retired following the 1996 Atlantic Olympics. Bob is an important figure in FWAA history. A Past President of the FWAA (1992), Hammel actually was responsible for starting the FWAA’s Annual Best Writing Contest, now in its 27th year. He also is credited for helping to create the Bronko Nagurski Trophy, the “defensive Heisman,” and securing the Charlotte Touchdown Club as its sponsor. This season, the CTC will host its 25th Anniversary Banquet. Hammel claimed the Bert McGrane Award in 1996. His last college football season as a full-time reporter was in 1995, but his old paper printed his winning entry in this year’s contest.